Secretary of State James A. Baker III briefed the press as crisply as he could about the murky situation in the Middle East, picking his way among the various land mines of "appeasement" and "saber rattling." Congress, breathing fire, had come and gone, and decided that maybe the nation could survive without a special session on Saddam Hussein or a clearer definition by President Bush of our purposes in the sand.

The secretary, who through many campaigns has played protector and interpeter of George Bush -- to the occasional annoyance of the latter -- took a cut at the "vision thing" on the Persian Gulf, but he too came up short. In an attempt to cast it in political terms the most obtuse congressman could grasp, he said Tuesday in Bermuda that what was at stake was no less than "American jobs."

". . . Economic recession worldwide, caused by the control of one nation -- one dictator, if you will -- of the West's economic lifeline, will result in the loss of jobs on the part of American citizens."

Baker's intervention did not, it is said, go down well with our shaky Arab allies, who prefer less crass abstractions like "freedom" and "independence."

Possibly, however, it caused Congress to retreat. At a rare White House press briefing yesterday, Baker dug in firmly against the war powers act -- the post-Vietnam legislative bleat from Congress, which never takes the initiative in stopping a president on his way to war but which whines, when the bombs begin to drop, that nobody ever tells it anything. Baker said sternly that he regards the war powers act as unconstitutional. He did not mention that the Constitution clearly states that "only the Congress can declare war." This has been much honored in the breach, from Vietnam through Panama. Presidents make war when they want to.

Baker, the ablest of the president's men, has been under special scrutiny lately because he is insistently rumored to be a replacement for Dan Quayle in 1992 and because of a front-page New York Times story by Thomas Friedman that depicted him as a cool-hand Luke restraining an impetuous president.

Where was Baker's tempering touch, you may well ask, in the troop escalation decision that set the Democrats' defense guru, Sen. Sam Nunn, to fuming and other lesser folk to squawking and flapping?

Baker is considered the most seductive secretary of state since Henry A. Kissinger, who co-opted the Capitol press corps with a heady mixture of off-the-record briefings, personal telephone calls and the dazzle that comes to any personage, no matter how pudgy, who dates Hollywood stars.

"Henry on line two" was called out many a time on deadline, sending a small thrill through newsrooms, whose denizens covet celebrities too.

Kissinger told his disciples that he was restraining an impetuous president and it was easy to believe, since Richard Nixon had a theory that if the enemy thought you a madman, he would be more inclined to crumble.

But even Kissinger, despite his disdain for many democratic practices, held news conferences now and then. At a famous event in Ford times, some heretic who was plainly not a State Department regular asked the doctor if he had retained a lawyer against possible legal difficulties attendant on Watergate wiretapping. Kissinger was incensed at being treated like anyone else, and when he arrived shortly thereafter in Geneva, the enormity of the offense came over him and he threatened to resign. Whereupon the Senate figuratively fell to its knees and passed a resolution telling him that he was probably the most wonderful man who ever lived. He was appeased.

Baker communicates constantly with reporters who travel with him. He briefs them aloft, often under the guise of "senior administration official," giving them plenty to write. He has press briefings abroad. But as Time magazine's Chris Ogden pointed out, he held no domestic news sessions for the first eight months of his regime, and he hasn't done much better since. He testifies to Congress, and he goes on talk shows, but avoids the give-and-take of the normal press conference where riffraff can ask about failures. He never has to talk about El Salvador where the first anniversary of the murder of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter will pass without a single indictment.

Some scribes have rudely noted that Baker ducks the blame for dirty campaigns or bad policy -- as in the case of the Iraq aggression, which some 500,000 Americans eventually may be committed to stopping. But Baker's job security is the best in the city.

It is not necessary to be eloquent, or even consistent, about war aims as long as the opposition is represented by a Congress that deep down agrees with Bush and Baker that foreign policy is really none of its business.